First-Century Jews

Jewish Society back to top

Scholars estimate that approximately 4,000,000 Jews lived in the Roman Empire during the first century. As a result of war, exile, trade, and business the Jews were dispersed throughout the Empire. The Jews of the Dispersion, designated Diaspora, practiced the same religion but at the same time were distinct from the Jews in Judea. They spoke Greek while the Jews of Judea usually spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. As a result, the Diaspora read the Scriptures in Greek, the Septuagint, and not the Hebrew. In general, the Jews separated themselves religiously and morally from the influences of other cultures, but other areas of their lives were affected by living in areas where they were in the minority.

Jewish society was generally less stratified than the rest of the Roman world. Chief priests and rabbis formed the upper class. The majority of the population was farmers, artisans, or small businessmen. Tax collectors were despised because of their immorality. The Roman government assigned these jobs to the individual who would do the job for the lowest pay. They would then collect taxes illegally and keep them thus making a living for themselves.

The synagogue represented the center of Jewish worship. The synagogue was rectangular in shape with a speaker's platform. Behind the platform stood a chest in which the Old Testament scrolls were stored. People sat on mats, stone benches, or wooden chairs. The rulers and priests sat opposite the congregation facing them. The people sang without music. The speaker stood to read from the Old Testament scrolls and sat down after he taught from them. Everyone stood during prayer. Mosaic sacrifices were only offered in the Jerusalem Temple. The synagogue became the center of all Jewish life including a place for political meetings, school for Jewish children, and a courtroom.

Jewish families were usually large. Boys were more valued than girls were. Families had no last names and therefore were identified by their father, their occupation, their political position, or where they were from. Jews ate only two meals a day, one at midday and the other at night. They ate mostly fruit and vegetables; consuming meat only on special occasions.

Many people converted to Judaism. Godfearers were those individuals who practiced elements of the religion, but were not circumcised and did not fully follow the law. The Jews expected a messiah and most believed that he would come in the form of a prophet, a priest, or a royal official. They expected a human, not a divine being to come and save them from Rome. There were also those who proposed that God would deliver His people and then set up a ruler who would reign over them.

Jewish Religion back to top

Besides the obvious division between the Judaism of Palestine and that of the Diaspora, other divisions may be detected, especially within Palestinian Judaism. Josephus refers to three principal Jewish sects: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Of these three, the first two also appear in the New Testament.

Pharisees back to top

They are the quintessential bad guys. Known throughout the centuries as hypocrites and a brood of vipers, the Pharisees have the ultimate case of bad P.R. In looking at the Apostle Paul, it is only fair to ask if this classic understanding is accurate. Paul, on many occasions (Acts 22; 23; 26; Philippians 3; etc.) refers to himself as having been a Pharisee. Who was this group to whom Paul belonged before his conversion? Why do they have such a bad reputation? What should we think of them and more importantly, what difference does their previous existence make to us if any at all?

The general consensus of most scholars is that the Pharisees began sometime after the Babylonian exile and before the uprising of 165 BC. Most scholars attribute a link between them and the Hasidism or "pious men" if the 2nd century.

By the time of Israel's political independence under Maccabee (140 BC.) the Pharisees appear to be a recognizable group already entrenched in their infamous conflict with the Sadducees. During the next 100 years they would go in and out of favor with the rulers of Judea, and at the same time grew more popular in the Jewish community.

Two of the most famous and influential of the Pharisees before the time of Christ were Hillel and Shammai. They each represented whole schools of thought, but the Hillel house was to do more to shape Judaism in the future; largely because it was his followers who led in the formation of the academy of Jamnia after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Saul was a student of Gamaliel who in turn was of Hillel's teaching.

The most likely meaning of "Pharisee" comes from the Hebrew parush or "separated." They kept themselves separate from the Roman and Hellenistic culture around them. They clung tenaciously to the Torah and to the Jewish religion and to ideas like bodily resurrection. They believed that abrogation of the law by the Jews had resulted in national catastrophe. The Pharisee desired to obey that which their forefathers had neglected.

The Pharisees did not neglect the letter of the law, but the giver of it, Jesus Christ. In trying to earn God's favor, they missed the fundamental message of the law: no one is holy except God!

Sadducees back to top

The Sadducees were legalistic Jews whose main concern was maintaining the integrity of the Mosaic laws. The Sadducees believed in strict, literal interpretation of the law, without any influence from oral tradition or contemporary society. The Sadducees also did not believe in life after death. According to F.F. Bruce, they most likely rejected the idea of good and evil spirits. As a result of their rejection of life after death, the Sadducees believed that God's blessing and judgement would occur during one's life on earth. Unlike the Essenes, who were fatalistic, the Sadducees believed in free will.

The Sadducees were imprisoned by their tradition and they resisted any attempt to change the temple, the priesthood, or the law. Even though they were able to prevent new ideas from forming in the traditions of Judaism and the temple, their individual lives were greatly influenced by the culture of the day. Helmut Koester believes that the name "Sadducee" is identical with "Zadokite." Ezekiel and Ezra had commanded that the high priest should always be a descendent of Zadok, David's high priest. As a result the Sadducees argued that they were the rightful heirs to the priesthood and therefore they sustained their position in Jewish religion.

Essenes back to top

The Essenic community lived as if the messianic prophecies had been fulfilled and the eschaton was imminent. They believed that they were the true people of God. The Essene's ultimate concern was maintaining the law and purity of the community. The priests, guided by the Righteous Teacher or high priest, interpreted the law. They lived in a communal society where everything was shared and no one owned personal property. They had meals together every day, symbolic of the messianic banquet that would occur at the end of time. Because they thought they were living during the last days, they lived anticipating a battle between themselves, the people of God, and the followers of Satan.

The Essenes believed that they possessed esoteric knowledge about the end times and the fate of the universe. They anticipated three messianic figures: a prophet, a priest, and a king descended from David. They also knew about demons, spirits, and angels. Angels, according to Essenic writings, worshipped in heaven and fought against the demonic forces. According to Hippolytus, they also believed in life after death. Upon dying, the soul waits in a heavenly place until the final judgement when it is reunited with the body. The Essenes' history ended in AD 68 when the Romans annihilated their community.